Fresh data on the state of the economy Friday showed that the two goals are coming into conflict. The economy grew only 2.5 percent in the first quarter, in large part because of a sharp 11.5 percent drop in military spending, and that came on top of an even bigger 22.1 percent plunge in military spending at the end of last year.
“It makes me feel torn,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “The bottom line is military spending is government spending, and in the absence of any sort of other stimulus for the private sector, we need to get it where we can.”
The pattern of military cuts is expected to continue over the coming months. The United States is intensifying its withdrawal from Afghanistan and has exited Iraq. And a pair of budget measures — including budget caps put in place in 2011 and the reductions known as sequestration — are forcing the military to sharply cut back.
The shrinking Pentagon budget also raises tough questions for liberals about the role of the military as a source of employment. At a time when the country is struggling to keep good-paying manufacturing jobs from going overseas, weapons systems and armored vehicles must be made in the United States, creating jobs at home.
Shrinking the military means more veterans looking for work, and the government has struggled to place recent veterans in private-sector jobs. The unemployment rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is 11.8 percent, compared with 8 percent for veterans overall, and President Obama is preparing another major push Tuesday to help with veteran employment.
The internal tensions among liberals over military spending cuts echo debates among some conservatives, who want to maintain or expand defense spending but struggle to explain how to do that at the same time they wish to substantially cut the federal budget.
Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University and a former national security official in the Bill Clinton administration, said the conflicts are explained by basic politics — and have been present during every major military drawdown since World War II.
“In either party, there’s going to be a tension for the members between wanting to cut defense and wanting to save jobs in their district,” Adams said. “We’re in one of those big 20-year cycles where the budget goes up with a combat and then comes down. It always brings these politics to the surface.”
Mixed feelings on the left
Liberals say they feel deeply divided. They welcome the fact that the military — after so many years of growth — is adjusting to tighter spending controls. But they acknowledge that the cuts are happening at the worst possible time, when the economy is already growing slowly and could use a lift from the government.